The Unsung Cards of Time Spiral

Everyone’s been reading Drafting With Rich, right? You all know that Blue is the best color, don’t you? Even if the grumpy Canadian loves his Black and Red spells, there’s no doubting the power of the sea. However, while we all know the obvious cards to look for, it’s our 21st-23rd cards in any given deck that separate the good builds from the great ones. Today, Limited expert Quentin Martin takes a look at some of the more marginal cards that can shine in the triple Time Spiral format. Some of the cards he champions, and some of the theories he posits, are definitely worth discussion…

By now everyone should have some idea what they’re doing whilst drafting Time Spiral. More than most draft formats, I have an aversion to certain colors and color combinations. What these are I’ll delve into a little later; for now, it is safe to say that the reason for this is fairly standard – it is that there is only one set. This has been said of many formats — for example, triple Ravnica, where Dimir was vastly more powerful than the other guilds; and triple Champions, where Devouring Greed and Rage meant that Spirit-orientated decks were simply better. In most of these formats, things evened out with the introduction of the second, and in the most drastic of cases, the third additional sets.

Not only are most people okay with which colors they want to draft, but within those colors and combinations people have mostly solidified their draft pick orders, or are aware what each combination lacks and rate certain cards differently as a result. There are still cards that people either overrate or even drastically underrate, and this is what I want to talk about today. These are the points that differentiate the good from the best… and I don’t know about you, but I want to be the best.

Every time a new block comes out, Green gets slammed in Limited. I still remember wheeling Blastoderms in Masques block, Nantuko Disciple in Odyssey, and even the common dragon Moss Kami in Champions. Normally a color being avoided is subsequently underdrafted, and what is underdrafted is what you should draft. I can normally be found nay-saying the nay-sayers when it comes to Green power, but this time I’ve been agreeing with them. Until lately. Recently, Blue/Green has replaced Blue/White as my most drafted archetype. I still think Green is slightly less powerful than the other colors, but it does have some redeeming graces. Search for Tomorrow and Gemhide Sliver can push the tempo that Blue cards like Snapback, Temporal Eddy, and Riftwing Cloudskate generate to absurd limits. Nantuko Shaman provides the beats, fills the curve, and draws a card! Red/Green has it merits too, providing a good measure of aggressive beats backed up by removal and creature enhancement in all their usual forms.

There are still some combinations I still try hard to avoid. Despite Rich’s unhealthy attraction to R/B, I feel it is a poor archetype, typically defined by its bombs and its card advantage. If the two combined do not total around nine or more then the deck will not win. W/G can be very powerful but is often plagued with loses if it doesn’t curve out perfectly every time. G/B is similarly clunky, with no real overall synergy, a lack of evasion, and a weak removal suite; inevitably, it ends up splashing Red to abuse a greater range of cards and to flashback its Strangling Soots, meaning it often has to play weaker cards like Greenseeker (which can get better depending on how many Dark Witherings you have). The problem with this is not necessarily that your deck will have to be filled with weaker cards, but that during the draft you will have to pick the fixers like Terramorphic Expanse and Pentad Lens over cards that are significantly better. In fact, the only I actually want to draft with Black is Blue. Much like Mori, I love this combination – it manages to abuse a lot of cards that people underrate whilst simultaneously lapping up all the heavy Black spells that people want to avoid being caught up playing. W/B has huge mana issues, often trying to run cards like Knight of the Holy Nimbus and Tendrils of Corruption at the same time. This is not the only problem – the colors lack card advantage, so you will often be left hoping to top deck something, especially if your Castle Raptors won’t go the distance. White suffers from the same problem as Black – if it isn’t mono, then I only want it with Blue. W/R is viable, but it just doesn’t have the consistency to go 3-0 all the time. Your draws need to curve well and often, Rebels can aid this but they don’t explain away the combinations other deficiencies.

A good summary of my preferences would be “I want Blue.” I won’t lie, I want it good. Blue is, in my opinion, by far the best color. It is abundant in card advantage, it has a common bomb that most colors have difficulty dealing with and it has the most underrated cards around. What’s the most underrated card of them all?

Think Twice. It’s just another day for you and me in paradise… Why is this card so good? The list is almost endless. It helps fill your curve, it can be discarded to other effects and still provide advantage, it’s an instant and it provides card advantage. I feel like I’ve been hit in the gut every time my opponent unmorphs a Fathom Seer, Think Twice is much the same. It doesn’t really matter what kind of packaging the card advantage comes in, it always goes down smooth. This format is S.L.O.W… Games will drag on past turn 13 often enough; it’s so easy to slow things down, there are so many walls and Fungus that you always have the time. Think Twice is most often compared to Counsel of the Soratami and Inspiration, but part of its strength is not that it simply draws two cards, but that it does so with a diverse and time saving cost. You can spread it over turns, it doesn’t really matter when you do it, just use up your extra mana when you have it. It has plenty of little combos too, some are bad and will only be seen in underpowered Two-Headed Giant decks – Paradise Plume and Voidmage Usher, for example. It goes hand in hand with Cancel and Crookclaw Transmuter by providing a valuable excuse for passing the turn with mana up. It helps storm up Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens. After Fathom Seer, it is always the card you most want to draw late into the game. I always try to have at least four Think Twice/Fathom Seer in my decks. In the words of Michael Jackson – take my strong advice, just remember to always Think Twice!

Next up on my list is another Blue card — Dream Stalker. Have you seen the size of this guy’s butt?! He laughs at almost every four drop and under in the format, not to mention Keldon Halberdiers. It is often dismissed because of its measly one power, but people often forget that its strength is that it can team up with other weaker creatures such as the face up Fathom Seer (I just can’t love that guy enough), or ping effects like Prodigal Sorcerer, to deter creatures from attacking. Maybe the strongest reason for Dream Stalker is not how well it combos with Sage of Epityr, but with other creatures with come into play abilities. Once more, top of the list is Fathom Seer. Others include Coral Trickster, Crookclaw Transmuter, Brine Elemental, Draining Whelk, and Mystic Snake. If you have a Teferi, it will save any guy much like a Momentary Blink. It helps boost your storm to ridiculous lengths in the late game or in Two-Headed Giant. When one of you men is Eternity Snared or Temporarily Isolated, he’s your man. If you’re need two mana of a land you only have one of, you can float it, bounce and re-lay the land and add the second to your pool. Reuse your Unstable Mutation, reset an opponent’s Oyster, stop your Eye from locking you – he does it all. Dream Stalker is the cornerstone of any U/B deck, providing some much-needed defense. In other words, Dream Stalker is the balls.

I’ll stick with Blue cards for the time being. I’d mention Fathom Seer again, but only because it still isn’t valued highly enough – it may well be better than Looter Il-Kor. I’ll move on. Giant Oyster is being treated unfairly – this card is genuinely good. He acts as removal but, more importantly, his effect on the game is mammoth… a removal-light deck will almost scoop to him. Pick him higher. Next on my list is Slipstream Serpent. Mori was the one who tipped me off to just how good this card is when he knocked me out of Top 8 contention in Yamagata and then again in Worlds. Most people think of it as filler or as a sideboard card against other Blue decks. This card is awesome. I’ll say no more about how good it is against Islands; but in other cases, this guy is so huge, it’s nigh on impassable. It holds the fort in ways that make Dream Stalkers jealous the world over. Sure it can be flown over, but most decks with flyers are Blue… This card will normally funk around in morph form and then it will attack, get blocked – as it is one of the few morphs that gets bigger when face up, and will often get blocked because people correctly fear the Brine Elemental it might be the following turn, and it will flip up, take down a guy and then more than earn it’s keep on D. At worst, it’s still a friggin’ morph!

A few more Blue cards of note – Viscerid Deepwalker has slowly been getting the respect it needs, even to the point that it might now even be too highly rated! Eternity Snare is more often than not a sideboard card, but it is an important one. It deals with bombs like Errant Ephemeron and fatties like Phantom Wurm; if timed right, it can take out problem cards like Prodigal Sorcerer for removal-less colors. It shines in U/B once more, much like Assassinate does, because that combination almost always tends to play the game on the back foot, ensuring that there will probably be a tapped creature of worth on the opposite side of the table. Late in the game, or if there is now a better target for it, you can even return it with Dream Stalker, netting you an additional card! Sage of Epityr is not as bad as it seems. It’s no Cadillac, but it is deceivingly good. There are plenty of one-toughness cards played that it deters, like Trespasser Il-Vec and Goblin Skycutter; it can help double-block a creature to death, acting like a weak Battlegrowth; it smoothes your curve – deceptively important, especially if you are light on two drops, or have many Looters and Ephemerons. And if it’s Looter multiples you have, it can always be discarded! Though it is overrated, it’s kind of cool to return this on the second turn with a Dream Stalker.

A card that has been gaining value for me a lot is Trickbind. I now almost always maindeck it. It counters suspend and madness, that much is obvious, but it’s the little things that give this strength. Like stopping a Saproling being sacrificed / created crucially mid-combat, or the final point of damage that a pinger will do when they thought they had “traded” a guy during combat. Trickbind is so unexpected and almost impossible to play around that it seems to win the game every time it’s cast. And, one final nod to a card that can sometimes have value – Clockspinning. This card does not just affect suspended cards – but any card with a counter. You can decrease / increase a Clockwork Hydra, a Phantom Wurm, a Fungus, a Spike, a Giant Oyster, Serrated Arrows, or even just help charge a storage land. It even acts as a trick with your suspended card – enabling an Ivory Giant in your opponent’s turn, or an Ephemeron before blockers are declared. Again this card is almost always a sideboard card unless you have a lot of suspend, but it’s worth having a look at.

For a card that doesn’t see much play, it’s surprising how much people wince when their opponent resolves a Jedit’s Dragoons. Kenji recommended this deck as a sideboard card in the White mirror or against evasion light decks. It shines in these matchups, but it is far from useless elsewhere – it is actually good against evasion in decks that have few ways of dealing with flyers and have to race them. It is the perfect accompaniment to a deck filled with late game winning Think Twices and Fathom Seers. Often White decks will have trouble with something as simple as simple as a Coal Stoker – this is your answer. I always like having one in my deck. In fact, Frank Karsten’s favorite two-card combo in this format is sticking a Griffin Guide on one of these babies and going to town.

D’Avenant Healer continues the trend of undervalued cards with dominating effects. When this is one the table, you are often thrust into the driving seat. With a little help from other cards, the Healer controls the combat phase, shutting down anything with one toughness automatically, then protecting your guys like a miniature Crusade and, if needed, it can finish off their guy. For a card that often gets picked fifteenth, it is surprising how often it gets Rift Bolted – if it’s on the board, it will normally be the target of choice. Having said all of this, due to the strength of White’s other three drops and the fact that it is the color most often paired with Blue and its morphs, it is often relegated to the sideboard.

I was asked after a featured draft in Paris why I always flicked Bogardan Rager to the front of my pack whilst drafting. I would always linger on it, do some math and then either pick it, or shunt it hopefully back in the pack. The reason is that I almost always want one or two of these in my deck, but it’s so underrated that you can wheel it so often, so I’ve started planning picking it that way. The card is a pseudo-Nekrataal. It’s often an unexpected three for one. A 3/4 in this format is huge – it evades the common removal like Rift Bolt and Strangling Soot, falling only to Lightning Axe and Temporal Isolation. For some reason a lot of people don’t factor this guy into their math when making blocks, so it winds up being better than it should be. If you need further persuasion, think how good it is with Dream Stalker… He’s kind of a big deal.

Nekrataal in any form is good; the same can be said about Man-o’-War lookalikes. That’s why Sparkmage Apprentice was good in the last block, and it’s the same reason why Subterranean Shambler is good now. Some of the best creatures in all of the colors die to it: Amrou Scout, Looter Il-Kor, Gemhide Sliver, Trespasser Il-Vec, Keldon Halberdier, and Goblin Skycutter. It makes the guy who spent the last few turns setting up a huge Empty the Warrens look pretty stupid. Similarly to the Rager, this card is overlooked when people do combat math, with normally devastating results – you need look no further than the last game the Dutch won against the Japanese to see how powerful it can be (in this case, winning the unwinnable game). It’s no coincidence that this guy too rocks with my favorite 1/5, providing a Pyroclasm for six mana and Sulfurous Blast for ten!

There’s not too much that can be said about Green. Strength in Numbers is still picked too late, as any Green deck that likes to turn its men sideways wants it, especially if complimented with Red. One of the cards I am most afraid of facing is Havenwood Wurm. For some reason, if you give Moss Kami an extra point on the behind and speed him up a little, people think he becomes unplayable. Do you know how fat this guy is? He’s a bloody 5/6. C’mon! This guy is even splashable under the right circumstances. I always play one and often try to squeeze the second into my decks. Turn 7 or 8 is only a stone’s throw away.

I’ve saved two of my favorites for last. One of my most played cards is Venser’s Sliver. He’s pretty big. On the surface he’s nothing special, but when you look at most U/B and R/B decks, they’re often light on sizable creatures. Not only is he a sliver with no negative effects your opponent can benefit from, you can only gain from the ones he plays. You’ll often find him in my W/U decks alongside Watcher Sliver and figure that’s why he’s there. You’d be wrong. Although for this reason he is more commonly used as a sideboard card, Venser’s Sliver is an Artifact. Corpulent Corpse and Amrou Seekers care very much about this often overlooked feature. This guy has almost nothing bad going for him other than being slightly overpriced and comes with a whole package of beneficial side effects. Give him a try some time.

I might be the biggest advocate around for playing the next card – Urza’s Factory. I’m hard put to ever pass this card from around my fourth pick onwards. My decks are almost always two colors as I think splashing is almost always a bad thing unless you have a lot of fixers, especially when there are so many playables in this format, as this article shows. Being two colors and running, on average, seventeen land means that even with the Factory and no fixers you still have eight sources for each color, and that, as Gandalf says, is a very encouraging thought. So other than a free card for our deck, why is the Factory so good? It provides my favorite thing – card advantage. When the game enters its end stage, when players are running out of gas and topdecking, the Factory starts churning. If you draw a land and you don’t have the seven mana needed yet, you are one step closer, if you already have enough mana, make an Assembly Worker; and if you did draw a spell, punch the fist. A free 2/2 every turn is backbreaking. The color combination it stands out best both in and against is R/B. In it, it provides the card advantage those colors sorely need, after killing everything they also provide the win condition to finish them off, or give you the time to dig for that Phthisis you need. Against, it renders their removal less effective, as once they’ve killed your actual creatures, the Factory kicks in, overwhelming them with minions.

Why am I talking about all these cads that are either the 23rd card or sideboard-able? Well for a start, most of them are 21st cards in a bad draft, and often painful cards to cut in a good one, but that’s what this knowledge will provide you – the ability to more easily draft well and not be scraping around the bottom of the barrel for playables. You’ll be splashing less often, meaning your draws will be more consistent and you’ll be able to draft and build your deck with more potential for abuse. It will be a while before I forget some of the decks Nassif drafted long ago in Athens — Dream Stalker / Mystic Snake / Teferi control, mono-totem control, and mono-Kai control. They all featured a superior perspective of the game than others. Most, looking at the pools he had drafted, would have gone a different way, included different cards, but he was able to re-evaluate the cards when these bizarre situations occurred. Hopefully, this article will enable you to do the same.